The iconic video game franchise gets a prickly, unoriginal adaptation that piles on the contrivances and dated references.
The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. The greatest trick Sonic the Hedgehog ever pulled, on the other hand, was convincing the viewer it was harmlessly mediocre. But while the Devil is outright evil, the feature debut from Jeff Fowler is much more cynical: the kind of empty calories that fattens up the audience before leading them to the slaughter.
For a while, it just feels mundane. The performances are on autopilot, but at least they aren’t crashing straight into the ground. The visual effects are cacophonous and the action scenes are derivative as can be, but at least they’re okay given the context. And then it clicks. Not only is this adaptation empty. It’s also aimless and without enough connective tissue to work on a baseline level, kind of like those viral tweets that tell people to make a run-on sentence with their phone’s predictive text function.
It’s more than a little confused in that way too. Here’s a movie ostensibly made for families and children based on the video game franchise that’s approaching its 30th anniversary, but it’s not really that. It’s more the sort of pandering nostalgia that signals a lack of originality, only it’s unstuck in both time and context. Using the handy E.T. formula, writers Patrick Casey & Josh Miller use its characters as empty vessels. Worse yet, the title character (voiced by Ben Schwartz) isn’t so much a character as he is a mascot to print money.
The movie opens en media res before at which point Sonic introduces himself with oodles of exposition. First, he explains how he took refuge from his home planet after his super-speed attracted too much attention. (He also implies that baddies wanted his powers as if they could be passed on. In one of the film’s many dead ends, this turns out to be just a put-on.) Then he explains his life on earth or, more specifically, his life in the small town of Green Hills, Montana.
He lives vicariously through local cop Tom (James Marsden) and his wife, Maddie (Tika Sumpter), from outside their window. But this loneliness is really getting to him, and one night while playing baseball by himself, he sets off a region-wide blackout. He takes refuge again at Tom’s house just in time for the government to label Tom as, yes, an undercover terrorist. A series of mishaps unfold, Sonic accidentally uses one of his golden rings to open a portal to San Francisco, passes out after Tom shoots him with a tranquilizer dart, and ends up sending the rest of his rings out of state.
It’s perfect timing too, what with the military sending Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) to catch the pair—even though not a single agent wants this guy involved. So why do they do it? Well, how else are the filmmakers going to get the franchise villain involved? The movie establishes itself on a bed of contrivances that don’t work on a narrative level, much less one that plays into the franchise’s mythology or history. The characters are joke vessels at best and mascots at worst and the central plot, as previously explained, is completely detached from itself.
Sonic the Hedgehog doesn’t just traffic nostalgia. It exploits it without understanding anything about it.
It’s not necessarily that the starting point itself is shoddily constructed. That’s an issue, of course, but it should at least have some bearing on what follows. But no: instead it’s potshot after potshot in a script where any sort of momentum falls at the expense of generic set pieces that puff the runtime to a feature-length. There isn’t even a basic sense of conflict here given how openly myopic each plot device is. For a movie about speed, it’s bizarrely subservient to dated pop culture references.
This, as it so happens, is the obvious symptom of its mishmash tone. Sonic the Hedgehog wants to be light and zippy, but there’s no world to base it in. The conceit of getting from point A to point B runs tangentially to a deeper story about home and belonging, but the movie seems entirely unaware of this. The references, be they to Fitbits or Olive Garden, are too stale to work for adults and too detached to work for kids. Worse yet, the action scenes are aped from other movies without the slightest attempt to hide the counterfeit nature of it all.
Maybe there’s something nefariously brilliant about all of this from a business perspective. The final product plays more like a checklist of what might work for some instead of what would benefit the movie itself. The inoffensiveness of it, the stock characters that fill the script, the feeling that it was made in 2006—Sonic the Hedgehog doesn’t just traffic nostalgia. It exploits it without understanding anything about it.
Sonic the Hedgehog is currently zooming through theaters nationwide.